Cedillo’s money is talking
Oh, they’ve come so far.
In the beginning, they gathered at Steven’s Steak House in unglamorous Commerce, where waiters in bow ties served them good sirloin on vinyl tablecloths. Today, they perch high above the traffic downtown, enjoying business chic and $13 mojitos at the Standard Hotel.
Yes, it’s never been a better time to be a Latino politico in Los Angeles.
That’s what I thought when I first read about State Sen. Gil Cedillo’s six-year, $125,000 spending spree at Banana Republic, the L.A. Opera and assorted five-star hotels, boutiques and restaurants around the world.
Once our Eastside politicians were a small group of men -- and only men -- plotting a future beyond their barrio districts, dreaming of advancing la causa and justice for their people.
They were the sons of working people and they knew they were a minority but felt they deserved a place at the table. Now they’re practically running the entire city and state -- or so it seems sometimes -- and the world is their oyster.
With power comes temptation. Sometimes it arrives in the form of a beautiful woman. More often, it’s simply proximity to the great money tree of politics and the serpents who keep inviting them to eat of the tree’s fruit.
Recent history shows that politicians of all ideological persuasions and ethnic groups have found themselves unable to resist taking a deep bite or two.
The temptations are always there for them, even when the rest of us are saying goodbye to the few luxuries that we have. It doesn’t seem fair.
Cedillo is an idealistic guy from Boyle Heights who used to run a Los Angeles-based union. As a Democratic state legislator, he has been friendly to the working man. He championed the cause of the least powerful constituency in California, illegal immigrants, arguing that they should have the right to driver’s licenses.
But that hasn’t kept him from accepting money from people and corporations with business before the state, including casinos, banks and pharmaceutical companies.
Since 2003, Cedillo has raised $1.2 million in campaign contributions. That might not be a big load of cash by Sacramento standards, but he’s faced no serious challengers and doesn’t really need the money. So what did he do with it?
To find out, I followed my colleague Michael Finnegan’s lead and perused the campaign finance reports.
Mixed in with contributions to other politicians and charities, there was a bunch of items that looked suspiciously like a recipe for the good life.
Under “office expenses,” Cedillo lists expenditures at the West Hollywood eatery Bastide, the Hotel Sofitel in Florence, Italy, and Banana Republic, where he spent $3,400.
Two years ago, The Times’ George Skelton, in describing the system that feeds such excess, wrote that Sacramento lawmakers spend their political donations “as if they’re cashing in gift certificates.”
Sen. Cedillo claims he actually did buy gift certificates for his staff and fellow politicians. That’s how he explained much of his $7,000 tab at Nordstrom.
At the Standard Hotel, a former oil company building transformed into one of the city’s trendiest hotels, Cedillo spent $5,705 in campaign money during 26 visits.
“This is a place where you come to tell yourself that you’ve arrived,” my wife said as we sat sipping mojitos on a couch on the Standard roof.
We were surrounded by skyscrapers and a vibe thick with exclusivity and pampered ennui. Not far from us, two adults played hand-held computer games. Boyle Heights was just a couple of miles away behind the skyscrapers, but it felt very far away indeed.
Cedillo’s staff says he went to the Standard for meetings because he lives downtown, in a building across the street, and he used the first-floor cafe more than the rooftop restaurant.
Cedillo told Finnegan that he obeyed the laws that prohibit using campaign funds for personal expenses. His staff told me he’s been audited three times by state authorities and no laws have been broken.
None, perhaps, except the laws of good taste.
With the unemployed lining up by the thousands at job fairs -- our modern-day echo of the bread lines of the Great Depression -- it simply looks bad to eat well and buy gifts for your friends with other people’s money.
Now Cedillo’s running for Congress in a May 19 special election to replace Hilda Solis, who was named U.S. secretary of Labor by President Obama. Solis fought famously for working people.
Buying gift cards at trendy retailers and schmoozing with other politicians at swank eateries is a poor way to audition for her former job.
Running from East Los Angeles to the San Gabriel Valley, the district has a Latino majority. And former State Sen. Richard Polanco is said to be working to unite L.A.'s Latino politicians behind Cedillo. That’s the way it worked back in the 1970s and ‘80s, when a group of Latino politicos known as “the Golden Palominos” met privately to pick the people they would “allow” to run in Eastside districts.
Steven’s Steak House, with its Rat Pack decor, was at the center of their orbit. There’s still a photograph of one of their members in the lobby -- then State Assemblyman Richard Alatorre, circa 1975, posing with a big smile next to Ted Kennedy.
These days you can get a cut of filet mignon at Steven’s Steak House for $19, only slightly more than the price of a mixed drink at the Standard. Most Latino politicos stopped going there a lot time ago, though the plastic roses on the wall are still blooming.
And even if the Golden Palominos were still around, they wouldn’t be able to unite the Latino Eastside behind Cedillo, though many of the community’s most powerful leaders have backed him.
He’s running against Judy Chu, a former Monterey Park assemblywoman and now a member of the State Board of Equalization. Despite Cedillo’s labor bona fides, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, recently voted overwhelmingly to back Chu.
The same state reports that provide a window into Cedillo’s spending paint Chu as a penny pincher. Some people might consider that a good credential for a leader when everyone is scraping by with less.
Over the last six years, Chu has spent less than $5,000 on meals and travel. Her total for shopping and entertainment: $0.